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the star market

The Star Market: Are Audiences Still Willing to Say, ‘We Love You, Jim Carrey’?

When Jim Carrey was paid $20 million by then-Sony chief Mark Canton to star in 1996's The Cable Guy, the move was derided as a standard-setter that would make Hollywood studios too beholden to powerful movie stars. To say that things have changed in the last fifteen years is an understatement; not only has the star system been practically dismantled, but Carrey comedies have lost much of their luster, too. His new film, I Love You Phillip Morris (read David Edelstein's review here), couldn't find a buyer when it premiered at Sundance in January 2009 (it will finally reach U.S. theaters today after plenty of time on the shelf) and Carrey himself now forgoes up-front paychecks (as he did for his last live-action credit, Yes Man) in favor of back-end profits. It's the kind of gesture that nods at both the star's dimmed stature and his history of box-office potential, and it's indicative of the kind of commercial crossroads Carrey now finds himself at. To get a better sense of how Hollywood regards him and what he should do next, we canvassed industry experts and asked them the question, "If Jim Carrey were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?"

Stock History: After a string of small supporting roles in films like Peggy Sue Got Married and Earth Girls Are Easy, Carrey got his big break as the standout member of the 1990 Fox sketch-comedy series In Living Color. Though the show was canceled in 1994, it couldn't have been a better year for Carrey professionally, as he lit up the big screen with back-to-back-to-back successes: the low-budget Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was an unexpected monster hit, while The Mask and Dumb and Dumber both grossed over $100 million.

Carrey continued to reign over the nineties as the decade's principal comedy star, though his forays into drama weren't always as successful. The Truman Show was a well-received hit, but when snubbed for an Oscar nod, Carrey joked during the awards ceremony, "It's an honor just to be nominated ... oh, no." He did pick up a Golden Globe for that film, as well as for playing Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, but future stabs at drama tanked, like Frank Darabont's misbegotten bomb The Majestic and Joel Schumacher's The Number 23. (One notable exception: the Michel Gondry–directed modern classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though it only scored an Oscar nomination for Kate Winslet, not Carrey.) And while Carrey still makes comedies, they now come infrequently, and he hasn't had a major hit since 2003's Bruce Almighty.

Peers: "Five or six years ago, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Jim Carrey were the three names you'd hear for big studio comedies," said one rep we spoke to, adding, "but not anymore — he's not mentioned in the same breath as those guys; he doesn't really have any 'peers.'" In fact, Carrey may be in the same boat as Eddie Murphy: white-hot sketch comics who've aged out of superstardom and aren't the sure bets they once were.

Market Value: When audiences are laughing, Carrey is remarkably consistent. The Cable Guy aside, he can be counted on to bring comedies in around $100 million, and when he hits, he really hits: witness Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty, which brought in $181 million and $242 million, respectively. So what's the problem? The choosy Carrey has worked much less over the last decade — he's only been seen in three live-action films over the last five years — and though How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a hit, many of his other family films have been too expensive to justify their so-so returns (like aborted franchise starter Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and the studio-submarining A Christmas Carol).

What Hollywood Thinks: "He needs to go back to Man on the Moon," said one rep we spoke to. "He's actually a really good actor, and really talented. He needs to go back to the heart of that, either by working with fresh, new filmmakers, or by doing something of quality that's totally unexpected of him: say, a musical with a great filmmaker. But no more dumb comedies; that's death."

Another rep said that Carrey has reinvented himself as a business-savvy actor, and now he should apply that flexibility elsewhere: "It's true that he cut his upfront fee entirely on Yes Man and it paid off big," since Carrey got 36.2 percent of the gross (the film took in $97 million domestically, with $125 million more coming from foreign markets). "But while he's reinvented himself financially, he's not done so comically or artistically."

In fact, some insiders think Carrey has missed his window of opportunity. "He's run his course," said one. "He's headed down the 'Robin Williams' path: He'll be remembered for what he's done in comedy, but he's not going to be Tom Hanks where he goes on to have a long dramatic career. 'Buy, sell, or hold?' Oh, I would have already sold."

The Analysis: Harsh words? Perhaps, but without the benefit of a recent, talked-about hit, the industry has cooled on Carrey. In a way, it's unfair, since Carrey has tried numerous times over his career to reinvent himself, and the risky gay comedy Phillip Morris is a perfect example. Unfortunately, audiences haven't been quite as receptive to his stretching, and now he's retreated to a safe place: Instead of making the dark indie comedy Butter after flirting with it for weeks (his role eventually went to Modern Family's Ty Burrell), Carrey moved on to the family film Mr. Popper's Penguins, which he's currently shooting.

A lot of the things Carrey does best are now being offered first to other actors: broad comic roles go to Jack Black (can't you see the mid-nineties Carrey in Gulliver's Travels?), family comedies approach Ben Stiller (who was attached to Penguins before Carrey came onboard), or Adam Sandler, and out-there projects seek the elastic Sacha Baron Cohen. Meanwhile, the most intriguing films Carrey has attached himself to never quite get off the ground; big-budget tentpole Ripley's Believe It or Not hasn't made it out of development, and while Carrey gained weight to play Curly in The Three Stooges, he then lost it just before the film actually got the green light, and now says he doesn't want to gain it back.

Still, despite some of his riskier misfires, the common perception is that Carrey needs to reinvent himself — the question is whether he feels the same way. "He’s one the guys in Hollywood who’s true to himself," said a top publicist we spoke to. "I don’t think his image is a big deal for him. He’s as comfortable — or as is more likely the case with actors, uncomfortable — in his own skin as anyone else out there. And with The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine, he’s proven that he’s a very good dramatic actor. But I think he has to decide, though: The kids who grew up on Jim Carrey comedies are now in their late 20s and 30s; sure, he has to retain some of his essence, but they don’t want to see the exact same thing over and over. They’re older now. He’s older now. He needs to project an image that’s a little more sophisticated — and possibly, a little raunchier, given how comedies are now. And that [change in image] can only come from a change in material."

The Bottom Line: Carrey's made enough money in his life to never work again, but wouldn't he rather generate headlines for his movies rather than for splitting with Jenny McCarthy or calling out Tiger Woods and his wife on Twitter? At one point, he had the right idea of working with top-shelf directors like Peter Weir, Milos Forman, and Michel Gondry; why not get back to that? He's friendly with Judd Apatow (who co-wrote Fun With Dick and Jane) and Ben Stiller (whom he was once going to co-star with in the aborted sci-fi comedy Used Guys), so it's time to ring them up and ask for work. We understand why he's doing Mr. Popper's Penguins — it's a gimme — but if he puts off picking a follow-up for too long, then chooses something throwaway, he'll become more of a curiosity than a comic mainstay.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Carrey's not a well-regarded stock these days, but that could change if he links himself to a highly anticipated project — though he may be following Eddie Murphy's career trajectory, Murphy did get a big comeback at this stage of his career and Carrey is due. Sell if you think he's past his prime, but we'd advise you to hold one more year to see if he rejoins The Three Stooges or accepts a juicy supporting role (perhaps he'd like to move forward with Todd Graff's Damn Yankees?).

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images